How Has Your Gender Affected You Today?

A series of signs reading “How has your gender affected you today?” was recently posted in Seattle, and I think it’s a very thought-provoking and generally excellent question to ask. Judging from the responses I’ve read here and there, the signs definitely sparked some conversations, and these conversations highlighted something which I’ve been increasingly aware of lately: people do not understand the difference between sex and gender.

Now, I’m not entirely sure that this is their fault, because this issue doesn’t get discussed very often in mainstream society. But since I’m trying to teach you all about how to be an LGBQT ally (assuming you aren’t LGBQT or an ally already), I thought that I would take the time to discuss the difference between sex and gender.

I’d also like to offer an opportunity to ask me questions, because I know that LGBQT issues can get really confusing, and that sometimes, it’s hard to find a safe space to ask questions about things that confuse, because you’re afraid of causing offense or looking stupid. So I’m hereby declaring myself opening to questioning, in the comment threads to posts like this one, or through email (meloukhia at gmail dot com), if you’re feeling shy. I promise to answer your questions thoughtfully and honestly, without making you feel like an oaf or an idiot for asking them, and if I don’t have the answer, I will find someone who does. I always say you can’t learn if you’re afraid to ask questions, but you can’t learn if you can’t find anyone to ask, either. So, ask away. Remember, there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.

Now, on to the difference between sex and gender. Put simply, sex is the thing between your legs, and gender is the thing between your ears. (I know, I know, some people call that thing between your ears “your brain,” but that’s my point. Gender identity is in the mind, not in the genitals.)

Sex is a biological characteristic. Most humans are born with either male or female genitalia, although some humans have what is known as “ambiguous” genitalia, which makes them intersex. Sex is not necessarily set in stone, as sex-change surgeries prove, nor is it black and white, as intersex individuals prove.

Gender, on the other hand, involves your perception of yourself, as well as society’s perception of you. It’s a personal and social construct, rather than a biological fact. Many people who are sexed male also have a male gender identity, and many people with female genitalia have a female gender identity. But gender does not necessarily have to align with sex. And there are many more terms than “male” and “female” in reference to gender, like “transgender,” which usually means that someone has a gender identity which conflicts with sexual characteristics, or cisgender, in which gender identity aligns with sexual characteristics.

There are also genderqueers, like me, who do not define ourselves as male, female, or transgender, but rather as an entirely different point along the gender continuum. You might also hear words like androgyne, boi, butch, femme, Amazon, bigender, gender fluid, neuter, agender, or eunuch in reference to gender identity. We won’t even get into pronouns today, because that’s an involved discussion, but let’s  just say that there is a lively debate over whether English needs truly gender-neutral pronouns (uh, duh, yes), and, if so (see previous), what those pronouns should be.

Obviously, gender identity and sexual characteristics often intersect. I may be genderqueer, but my sex is female, and I definitely face specific issues and deal with particular things as a result of my sex. Separately, I also deal with things related to my gender identity.

If you happen to be cisgender, the difference between sex and gender might seem subtle and perhaps not terribly important, but, in fact, it is important. And it definitely pays to remember the terms which someone uses self-referentially, and to use those terms as a mark of respect for gender identity. If someone looks like a woman but says he’s a man, he’s a man, because his gender identity is male, even if his sexual characteristics are not. If someone looks like a big beefy truck driver but says that ou* is neuter, that person is neuter, physical characteristics aside.

Discussions about gender identity can be confusing and awkward, and we all make pronoun slips or get turned around when trying to figure out what to call someone. That’s okay, really. Especially if you apologize, or politely ask for clarification. Sure, some people are going to be snotty about it, but you shouldn’t take their snottiness personally, because they clearly have some baggage they’re dealing with, and by staying polite and courteous, you set an example, showing that it is perfectly acceptable to be nervous and confused, and that it’s easier to be nice than it is to be mean. Eventually, enough courteous and relaxed interactions will scrub that snottiness right out.

So, how has your gender affected you today?

*Ou is my preferred gender-neutral pronoun, backed by no less than the Oxford English Dictionary, a source that usually knows that of which is speaks.

Note: I’ve had to close comments on this post, due to a deluge of spam.

5 Replies to “How Has Your Gender Affected You Today?”

  1. OK! Let me be the first to expose my own ignorance. I’ve got a few questions, but thought it’d be better to go one at a time for both our sakes. However, before I do that, can I just say I think these last two posts, this one and the ethics/morality post, are just outstanding! Thanks again for your time and effort.

    My first question is about the term “gay”. I’ve always understood gay to mean homosexual or non-heterosexual, but in today’s usage it seems to be more and more referring to fags. For example I see a lot of references to “gays and lesbians”, but find this label to be somewhat redundant. Shouldn’t it be “fags and lesbians” or just “gays”? I understand the word “fag” has somewhat degenerated into a pejorative term, but I’m trying to ignore it in favor of reclaiming its rightful status. Also, I’m aware that there are other sexual identities beyond gay and straight. My understanding is that they do not fall under the umbrella of “gays”.

    I guess, in nutshell, I’m asking what gay means today?

  2. Great question, Scott!

    In general use, the term “gay” is used to describe homosexuals with a male gender orientation. This is also true to historical usage: “gay” has pretty much always described male homosexuals.

    I would be very, very careful about using the word “fag,” because it is definitely a pejorative. It’s one of those sorts of words (like “cunt”) which is best left to the people who identify with it.

    There is no one word to describe a non-heterosexual (beyond non-heterosexual), although lots of people, including me, use “queer” to describe people who have any sexual preference other than heterosexuality. (Including gays, lesbians, bisexuals, polyamorous people, asexuals, etc.)

  3. How has my gender affected me today? How about sitting between two docs at lunch who are having a very vocal discussion about medical politics and talking right over me whenever I try to say anything because I am a woman and my thoughts from my teeny little brain don’t count. But at least it wasn’t all discussion of sexual conquests in the doctor’s lounge today. Someone actually suggested that it was too bad the government won’t let us unionize.

  4. Thanks for the clarification. The linguist inside me can’t help but note the interesting evolution of the term “fag”. It’s evolution seems very similar to the N-word in the sense that those within the given community can use it as almost playful banter, but those from outside the community are perceived, perhaps rightly, as using the term pejoritively. Do you think this is a fair assessment? Maybe it’d be interesting to consider other words that fit this process.

    My next real question is about the phrase “present female”. I came across this phrase some time ago and have had it rattling around my brain ever since. Given the author’s previous writings on several different sexualities, including hermaphroditism, would one most aptly parse the phrase as “looks female”, “is physically female”, or some other? Although I’ve never met the author, I know that ou is physically a female, but, without intentionally being obtuse, I’ve wondered what ou might be trying to tell us between the lines, if anything.

  5. People use the term “presents female” to describe someone who has superficial physical characteristics which could lead people to conclude that the person under discussion is female. (Like breasts, broad hips, etc.) One could just as easily say “presents male” to describe someone who looks male.

    But presenting female (or male) doesn’t necessarily mean that someone identifies with that particular gender, it just means that physical appearance leads to assumptions from people in the surrounding area. In some cases, this is viewed positively, as in the case of a male to female transsexual who successfully passes. In other instances, it is viewed negatively, or as a source of frustration, in the case of people who do not identify with the gender which they present as.

    In the case of a cisgendered woman or man, physical presentation and gender perception are identical, but people outside the male-female gender dichotomy often struggle with gender presentation, especially if they have ambiguous physical appearances which confuse or disorient the people around them.

    Thanks to the fact that pronouns and titles are binary (sir/ma’am, he/she, her/him, etc), physical presentation can be a bit of a minefield for people outside the binary system.

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